Muslim pilgrims throng Mina as annual hajj starts

Muslim pilgrims throng Mina as annual hajj starts

MINA , Saudi Arabia - Some two million Muslims thronged Mina Valley from the holy city of Mecca to start the annual hajj pilgrimage Sunday, with numbers down on fears of the MERS virus and Saudi cuts.

Authorities announced at noon that all the pilgrims had reached Mina from nearby Mecca, following in the footsteps of Prophet Mohammed some 14 centuries ago.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said the number of pilgrims from outside the country totalled 1,379,531 million, down 21 per cent on last year's 1.75 million.

Around 1.29 million of them had flown to Saudi Arabia from 188 countries, he said, without giving a figure for pilgrims residing in the kingdom whose number is believed to have been halved.

The kingdom cut by 20 per cent the quotas for pilgrims allowed in from abroad over fears of MERS and because of massive projects to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest place of worship.

Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia told reporters late Saturday the authorities had so far detected no cases among the pilgrims of the MERS virus which has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia.

Authorities have stepped up measures to curb illegal pilgrims who infiltrate into Mecca through desert roads.

Security officials have said that as many as 31,000 Saudi and expatriate pilgrims were turned back for not carrying legal permits, while around 12,600 others were arrested.

The pilgrims moved to Mina by road, by train or on foot, the men wearing ihram, the seamless two-piece white garment that rituals require, the women covered up except for their faces and hands.

In Mina, a small site with 45,000 fire-resistant tents that can accommodate two million people, they will pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat on Monday for the climax of the pilgrimage rituals.

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